A man of bottomless enthusiasm and ambition with a tireless work ethic, Henry Rollins has spent nearly thirty years recording music, acting, writing, publishing (himself and others), performing (with bands and as a spoken word artist), entertaining soldiers with the USO, blogging (Huffingtonpost and Vanity Fair), voicing over commercials and video games, and hosting TV shows and documentaries. I spent a week preparing for our 45-minute conversation by consuming as much of his voluminous catalogue as I could. This included thumbing through his nearly twenty books.
His most successful publication is probably Get in the Van: On the Road With Black Flag. Its success is due in large part to the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album Grammy its audio version won in 1995, beating out The Bible. As the book's subtitle attests, it details the years Henry spent in the seminal hardcore punk band, Black Flag – recording, touring, fighting, living in bandleader Greg Ginn's shed, and yes, driving a variety of unreliable vans.
Also notable are See A Grown Man Cry and Now Watch Him Die, companion collections of poetry/reflections/journal entries, written largely in response to the murder of Rollins's best friend and roommate, Joe Cole. Cole was shot in the face a few feet from Rollins while the two were being robbed.
I also watched both seasons of the Independent Film Channel series The Henry Rollins Show, and listened to approximately thirty hours of his spoken word recordings. Finally, I rocked out to a bunch of my old Black Flag albums and some favorites from the Rollins Band, which Rollins formed after Black Flag broke up in ’86. If I'd given myself more lead time, I'd have probably watched a few of his spoken word DVDs and caught a few of the many movies in which he's acted.
But this was a 45-minute interview, so I couldn't cover everything. I narrowed my questions down to seven handwritten pages. From the second we started talking, it became obvious that Henry is an interviewer's dream come true. He doesn't just do a lot. He talks a lot. During the course of our conversation, I asked exactly two questions from the seven pages of notes. What appears below is only about half of the original transcript. Enjoy. –TD
Tom DeMarchi: Can you give a little background on 2.13.61 Publishing? There have been a lot of changes in the publishing industry over the last twenty-plus years, and I’m wondering how those changes have affected 2.13.61.
Henry Rollins: I started the label—the company—many years ago just to put out my own stuff, knowing that no one else would do it. And coming from the punk rock DIY scene, that was instinctively what made sense to do. So I started the label, which was nothing but a P.O. Box, in 1983, when I was in Black Flag. I was working at SST Records and just doing it yourself was the way to go. I made a fold-and-staple book, which of course in those days I gave away more of than I sold. I sold enough of them to make a paperback—you know, a standard version of the fold-and-staple—and sold enough of those to reprint the first one, and then publish a second one, and on and on. Then a few years later I opened a small office just so there would be someone there to answer the phone, take orders, and distribute. Once the operation got stabilized, I looked around and saw that there were a few people, allies and comrades, who didn’t have a way to get their stuff out, and I thought, “Well, maybe we could provide a service.” We put out Nick Cave’s book King Ink and Don Bajema’s Boy in the Air. Don was a pal of mine, a good Bay Area writer. He and I would often perform together, and I said, “Hey, man, all those stories you tell on stage…you should make a book of them and I should put it out.” He said OK. Then I called Nick Cave and said, “King Ink isn’t out in America. How about I put it out?” And he said OK. That’s how we started working with other writers. Over the years we expanded and took on other writers, poets, and photographers. All of those books were very challenging to release because it takes a lot of money to promote a book, and it’s not easy to get people to read. We found that we had a lot of trouble breaking even. After a while of not doing as well as I wanted that to do, it became clear that it was financially dangerous to release books by other people, so a few years ago I stopped. Then I concentrated on the books that did move, which were my books. My staff said, “Quite honestly, you’re prolific enough that if you just focus on doing your books well, that’ll keep us very busy. Maybe we stop doing other people’s stuff, and instead concentrate on you and do a better job of that.” For the last several years, that’s been our model. That’s been the substantial change. I just don’t think we’d have been able to sustain what we do and how we do it with the writers we were putting out. Not that the writers weren’t good. I believe in those books and those writers very much. It’s just that in the current climate it’s really hard to keep the lights on and the doors open when you’re selling poetry and literature that appeals to a fringe audience.
TD: I got turned on to a lot of great writers through 2.13.61. One author that I discovered through you, though I don’t think he was ever actually on your imprint, was Hubert Selby Jr., who died a few years ago. I don’t think he was necessarily signed to 2.13.61, but you sold his books, and books by other non-2.13.61 authors, via your website.
HR: We had mail order and a vendor’s license, so we could buy books at wholesale. Selby was a friend of mine, and he died a few years ago, but we were pals. Thankfully, all of his books are in print now, but years ago, half of his titles were out of print in America. We’d buy the import editions of his books, take them over to his place and he’d sign them. We’d pay him, and then we’d put the signed, hardcover editions of The Demon and The Room on my website. They sold really well. Selby got a royalty, we attracted more traffic to our company, and we provided a cool service. People got what is probably a very valuable goodie—a signed Hubert Selby book. Not so bad! You know, he’s one of the great writers of the last century, now sadly gone. And that was just one of the things we came up with to keep people thinking of us, to keep enough money coming in so we could keep doing what we do. When you’re little and you don’t have much dough, you have to innovate. You have to be sharp.
TD: When David Sedaris goes on tour to promote a new book, he concludes every reading with a list of books that he thinks everyone in the audience should check out. He’ll recommend that everyone go out and buy a copy of, say, Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. He’s not just pushing his own work. He’s advocating literacy in general. You strike me in the same way in that you constantly recommend and promote artists that you love. For a while there, you were putting out a lot of other people’s stuff, like Matthew Shipp. The first time I ever heard of him was when you released Circular Temple.
HR: Yeah, I put out a few records by him. Basically his early catalogue came out through me. And how great is Matthew Shipp? He’s incredible.
TD: He’s amazing.
HR: He’s amazing. Those records were critical raves. We got him on the cover of Jazzizz Magazine. You like it. And those who like cool, out, adventurous jazz champion Matthew Shipp. But, you know, that doesn’t translate into sales. And it’s not a putdown on Matthew, not at all. He’s the man. But it’s hard as hell to sell this stuff. That’s the challenge. You want to break even and [also] do okay for the guy. To put out his record now and say, “Hey, Matthew, I’m going to try to break even on this.” If I were Matthew I’d be like, “Wow! Way to swing for the cheap seats. Gee, you’re going to try to break even. Boy, how enthusiastic am I to be on this label? Break even! That’s sure going to feed me.” That’s why I don’t want to work with someone who’s creating new material. Back catalogue, maybe. I don’t want to only be able to say to an artist, “Break even.” I want to be able to say, “I’m going to take you to a higher place than you are now.” But I don’t want to say, “We’ll sell a dozen,” because then it’s macaroni and cheese by the bus stop for the rest of my life. If Matthew came to me now and said, “I don’t have a deal. Would you sign me?” I’d say no because I can’t do for him what I think should be done for him. I can’t in good conscience sign him knowing that I’d be able to sell only 600 copies of his record because I don’t have the $20,000 or the staff to put him where he should be, or the time to come up with new ideas to get him a wider listenership. It’s frustrating to be in that position, but you have to err on the side of good judgment. That’s what the basic change in the company has been. We say, “Let’s not bite off more than we can chew; let’s make sure that we don’t burn anyone. Let’s make sure that our good intentions don’t end up being someone else’s nightmare.” All it is is good intentions. You can mean the best, but it might not always turn out that way.
TD: I met Matthew Shipp a few years ago at a show he was doing with William Parker and David S. Ware. It was an amazing show. David S. Ware said to me, “What are you doing here?” Because I am the most average-looking white guy you’ll ever see. He looked at me compared to the rest of the audience and said, “What are you doing here, and how did you even hear of us?” I said that I got into him through Matthew, and that I got into Matthew through Henry Rollins. He shook his head, took off his sunglasses, and really looked me in the eyes. After a while he said, “Keep listening, baby. Thank you.” Then when I talked with Matthew, he said you love all types of jazz, not just the out-there stuff. He said, “Man, Henry listens to everything. You’ll catch him listening to Ella Fitzgerald for twenty hours, then he’ll switch to Chet Baker, then John Zorn, and my stuff.” So I’m wondering what it is that draws you to jazz, and how it’s informed your own musical expression.
HR: It’s coming from such a high altitude of genius. So I can appreciate Coleman Hawkins or Dexter Gordon, you know, your older school guys. You know, the Prez [Lester Young], his tone, just the way these guys played, the way they loved every breath that came out of their bodies and blew into that horn. I can appreciate all eras of Miles [Davis]. I don’t have the last few records, but up until he retired the first time, I have all that stuff. I have Birth of the Cool and on and on. It’s all good to me with few exceptions. There’s something about the sound of that music where you go, “This is a miracle.” I don’t really feel that with rock music. I love Hendrix and the Ramones and all that stuff too. But I never get that feeling like, “Damn! This is lightning striking.” Jazz guys are able to make lightning strike whenever they want. I can understand a guy like Hendrix and how he came up with what he came up with much easier than I can understand how John Coltrane came up with his tone and how he was able to take that saxophone and make it sound so much different by just blowing through it. That’s why I’ve always been fascinated with horn players, because it’s as if their breath—or their lungs—had a signature sound. I don’t know much about blowing through a horn, but with a guitar there are all kinds of effects. There are many great guitar players who are signature-sounding. But that has to do with the model and the pedal, and not always as much what they’re doing with their fingers. With the horn, maybe it’s just my relative ignorance of the instrument, but all I see is a horn and a guy blowing his very life force into it. As soon as you stop blowing, no sound comes out. It’s such a human-driven thing. There’s no such thing as sustain with a horn, whereas a guy can leave his guitar onstage as it rings into the night as he hops on the tour bus and leaves town. The horn player, the jazz musician, has to kind of bring it and leave it onstage. A lot of these guys were so damn good, but unfortunately so damn black. They got paid a mere pittance for what was probably some of the greatest music ever put across in the last century. A guy like John Coltrane, as great as he was, ended up in a modest home in New Jersey. When you hear the music, you realize that it’s as relevant, as poignant, and as amazing as anything Beethoven ever did, and anything Einstein ever conceived. To me, Einstein’s got nothing on [Thelonious] Monk, nothing on Miles, nothing on Duke Ellington. I’m not putting down Einstein; I’m just saying that jazz music strikes me as that good, and gets me that excited. Whereas when I hear the Ramones, I go, “That’s cool.” But when I hear Clifford Brown, I go, “How the hell did you come up with that?” Jazz guys are coming from such a different space. I’ve met a few jazz guys in my life, and if they’re any good, they’re always looking at you like they don’t understand what planet you’re from. I’m very flat foot. I go, “Hey, I like your music!” Just like you, when I go to a place to see someone like David S. Ware, that’s what I get [from them] too: they’re like, “What are you doing here?” And I always go, “I really just like the music!” They’re like, “Keep listening, baby.” That’s all they can say to me, ‘cause they can’t figure out why I’m there. I can’t articulate a thing. I just know I like it. You know, Coltrane is my favorite musician. He’s the purest. He seemed to have a direct “in” with the spiritual creative force of the universe. I think that he could actually mainline into it and tap it. He didn’t go through the board; he tapped right into the thing. Especially those last recordings, like Stellar Regions. You know those last sessions. I’m not mystical or anything, but he was tapped into something very very deep, very very real. It’s not up for discussions. It’s undeniable. And I don’t hear that when I hear a lot of rock music. I hear people assuming the mantle. Like Joe Strummer said, “I had my time with it. Here’s the jacket and the guitar, son. You carry on.” I believe that’s the thing with rock music. You do it for a while, it’s a rite of passage, and then you hand it over to the next guy who cops some of the same riffs. And you go, “Yeah.” Because you’re young you’re supposed to go ahead and hit that big E chord, ‘cause that’s what being eighteen-years-old is all about. Eighteen is an E: you live it in E. You sound like the other guy. You hear it and go, “You know, the sex that you’re having isn’t any different from the sex the guy and the gal in the next room is having” But it’s not like you’re gonna go, “Oh, we can’t do that because it’s kinda like what they’re doing.” No, you go right for it. But with jazz, there are so many peculiar oddities in the genre. Here’s Sun Ra. And there’s Hank Mobley. And here’s this other guy. And jazz people are just such a different…they’re coming from such a different space.
TD: I’d like to follow that up by stealing a question that you posed to Jerry Lee Lewis in 1995. You asked him if he had any sense of his inspiration and influence on younger rock and rollers. I’m wondering if you can talk about your days with the Rollins Band and Black Flag, though I know that that was more of Greg Ginn’s vision. Do you have any sense of your musical legacy, and what it means to people who are starting to rock out today?
HR: I’m certainly part of all of that independent music of the last century. Some people go, “Black Flag is the only band that mattered!” Well, no. We were one of many bands. Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, D.O.A., Bad Brains, on and on and on and on. Black Flag was A) Greg Ginn’s thing, and B) a damn good band. But one of many good bands around at the time. Every city had good bands. Every city had killer bands, smoking bands. So Black Flag was part of that. Maybe what I leave behind is evidence that you can do this, and that you can be innovative and not necessarily go the party line, and still get results. You can get your own record out. You can get heard. My story is more that of determination and tenacity than talent. I don’t have a voice that you necessarily want to hear again. But you can say, “Well he sure used it hard.” So maybe there’s a lesson and something of merit there. And I think that’s what can be drawn from my time up here doing things. Yup, you need to know how to hang in for the very long haul.
TD: So tenacity and discipline are the things that have gotten you through, and the things that you think younger people will pick up on and try to use themselves.
HR: Hopefully. Because even if you are talented, you’re going to need a lot of the aforementioned just to make sure people know you have that talent. Talent’s not enough. I have proof. I’ve met a lot of talented people who are now flipping burgers, or jobs like that. You go, “Wait a minute. He was better at this than everybody. How come he’s not in the game and doing things with music or film, or whatever his thing was?” Well, because he lacked some of the other ingredients. Talent’s one thing. You need the discipline, the tenacity, and the backbone to push it over. Talent on its own is a very thin flame in high wind. You need an aggressive, almost battle-like nature to protect it. That was always the beauty of Miles Davis for me. Here was this delicate, small-boned man, who never blew very hard. His thing wasn’t force; it was savvy and a beautiful artistry. If you listen to him, it was a very delicate, small sound he made. He had to protect it by being a mean motherfucker. His whole continence was like a swan—graceful. But don’t touch the swan! His whole thing was very adversarial and battle-like. Someone would go, “I love your music,” and he’d go, “Why? Why, motherfucker?” And you’re like, “Whoa! I’m a fan, man! Don’t yell at me.” I think that was just him being very protective of “My Funny Valentine.” That’s what I’ve learned. You just really gotta want to do this. I learned that the third day in Black Flag. I realized very very quickly how hard this was going to be. I learned that this was going to be epic, to stay with this. By day two it was like, “Wow, there’s no food.” It was uphill immediately. I arrived there with a handful of $20 bills in my pocket from my old job [at an ice cream shop], which the band used immediately to eat. That’s when I realized we’ve got no money. We just spent all of mine, and now we’re looking for money to put in the gas tank. And that proved to be true. I learned to survive this kind of thing, you have to be hard, or you have to harden yourself like a samurai sword. You have to keep plunging yourself into the fire, and you have to temper that metal. You have to forge it. Keep heating it up and pounding it flat, heating it up and pounding it flat. You see that with guys like Iggy [Pop] or older jazz guys like Rashid Ali. These are nice enough people, but don’t mess with them. They’ve been up some miles of bad road, and they’re not going to get caught out there by the likes of you.
TD: And it looks as if you’ve learned this lesson well and applied it to everything you’ve done. You said yourself that not everything you do is a mainstream guaranteed hit. You’ve had to work really hard and push through a lot of doors.
HR: And be innovative. You can’t run your shoulder at every door until it relents. Most of the doors don’t relent, and you’ll just break your shoulder. Eventually you crumble. So you have to learn how to go around the door, or, build a building and install your own door. There are times that you can push and the door gives way, and other times where you go, “No, that door will never give. I’m wasting my time. I’ll go make one of my own.” That’s something I learned in the nineties and into this new century. I now know: I can do that. Like with DVDs of the talking shows. With the advent of the DVD, all of a sudden everyone’s a director. Everyone’s a producer. Everyone’s got a DVD. And with the Internet, everyone provides content. It’s like, I am a human being, therefore I blog. So I would make a DVD with some company, and then I went, “Wait a minute. That’s a camera crew, that’s a venue. I’ve got the phone numbers for camera crews and venues. I don’t need an advance. I’ve got enough money. I can shoot this myself and own it.” Over the last ten or so years, I’ve been shooting my own DVDs of talking shows. You bring in the camera crew and the light crew, and you pay obscene amounts of money. You shoot the whole thing in high definition so you have an option later. You cut it all together at great expense, and you’re sitting on this $60,000-80,000 hole in the ground. Then you find ways to get it out to the people. Since I own it, I can sell it at a cool nice-guy price, which I think is fair. Everyone gets what they want. People who dig me get a cool DVD that is cheap. I get my money back and then some, which allows me to make the next one. Basically, I got off the cotton farm. Someone’ll say, “Here’s an advance.” Well, I don’t want your advance. I don’t need your advance. When I need you, I’ll pull on your chain and use your company as a distributor. “Well, we’re not a distribution company.” Well, then you won’t work with me, because I’ll never ever give you any of my intellectual property again. So for the last several albums of my own, I do them myself.
TD: You’re talking about with your band?
HR: With my band, on my own. Yeah. I do the music publishing deal with my band members. The records sell very well, everyone gets paid. Everyone wins. Fans of mine get a cool record with a bunch of extra tracks at a nice-guy price, I make plenty of money—enough to finance the next excursion. In ’09 I hope to make some documentaries using the same principle. I shot five this year and have been around them enough to say, “Wait a minute, I can do this.” And now I am.
TD: What are some of the subjects?
HR: This year I shot one in Burma, one in Thailand, one in South Africa, one in Northern Ireland, and one in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. The Northern Ireland, South Africa, and New Orleans were done for the Independent Film Channel. The one in Thailand…we used Thailand as a location, but it wasn’t Thailand-specific. It’s a documentary on hunger, basically a lecture on world hunger. I financed half of that. The director and I went into Burma the week after we finished in Thailand and shot a bunch of footage there. That’s when it occurred to me. This is me with a clip-on microphone and two guys scurrying around with high-definition handheld cameras. All of this is easily findable. Cameras, no problem. The microphone I can get for sure. All I need are two guerilla cameramen who are willing to die in the heat of the jungle who want to go somewhere with me. Somewhere that I’m excited about or concerned about that’ll compel me to go. So I came back from Burma thinking, “I see what I’m doing in 2009. I’m making at least one or two of these.” All of those excursions were quite informative. I spent a lot of time this year in Southeast Asia. I was in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and Thailand. You learn quite a bit when you go to these places and you see the other end of the Vietnam War. You see where all those bombs dropped and what the other side thought of all of that. All quite eye-opening to an American.
TD: This brings us back around. I want to come back to how this might inform your writing now. Since this is a literary journal, and the people who are reading it are predominantly readers and writers, I’m wondering if you could talk about what I’ve seen as an evolution in your writing style over the years. I know you don’t like to label yourself as a poet or the stuff that you’ve written as poetry, but your early books are full of pieces that feature the conventions of poetry.
TD: They had a certain rhythm, and you had intentional line breaks. They were formatted like poetry. Now you’re writing more and more travelogues. Even your journals, which you’ve always published, are almost always now…well, at one point I believe you said your music and writing were forms of poor-man therapy. You did them to deal with your demons.
TD: But now it seems as if it’s shifted to more of an exploration of the world at large and your place in it and the policies that drive the madness.
HR: Yeah, yeah. As an older guy, I don’t feel the need to sit and write that line stuff. I found an old folder in the closet over the weekend from when I used to Xerox my stuff just to back it up because I had no computer or anything. I was looking at some old writing and I, um, I dig it. I mean that was me twenty years ago. I just don’t feel the need to think or express myself in that way anymore. As an older guy, I don’t really feel that kind of emotion in writing much anymore. Maybe I’ve been toughened through experience and laps around the track. I can’t be emo boy. Like, when I was younger and I was going out with a girl and the girl would leave, it was like [makes doom music sounds impossible to recreate here]. Oh no. The sun will never rise again. It’s like the letters I get. Some guy will write, “Henry, I’m twenty-one and the girl just left me. What am I going to do?” As a forty-seven-year-old guy, I write back, “I’m really of no use to you, because I just put on a Tom Waits record and laugh.” Because I know they’re still serving breakfast down the road, and everything’s going to be okay. So that kind of writing no longer is where my head is at. Where my head is at is, here I am in America, kind of cocooned by this perceived idea that we’re a super power. So maybe I should get out of America and get out into the real world and report back, and see what I can see, and see where my place is as far as an American in the world as best I can. And report to you, the reader, with as much clarity and accuracy as I can. That’s what’s more relevant and interesting to me at this point.
TD: So you’re doing a kind of cultural gonzo journalism?
HR: Yeah. It’s what makes me excited to put the pen to the paper, in a place, you know, where the humidity is so thick that the ink is running on the paper. That’s far more interesting to me than to write of my discontent. Or oh-lonely-me. I’m not putting that writing down. I just don’t seem to be doing much of it anymore, whereas I tended to do quite a bit of it as a younger guy. I’m quite a fan of everyone else’s writing, but not especially mine, but you’ll see that with Camus and all these guys, where the early stuff is poetry and then they move on, and they never go back. None of those guys—and I am not in any way comparing myself to any of them—none of them go back to that stuff. It was a time and a place. If you look at the lyrics of Guy Picciotto, who is one of those very genius guys, in my opinion—his lyrics in Rites of Spring, one of his early bands, one of the great releases on Dischord Records, are one thing. But his stuff in Fugazi…it’s like a different guy. He never went back to that Rites of Spring open-veined outpouring, which I quite like to listen to. It’s one of my favorite records of all time. But Guy never went back. I think you’ll find that a lot. Ian McKaye’s lyrics are very different in Minor Threat than what he’s doing in The Evens. In the same way, the earlier stuff is more emotional, and the later stuff is more political, or a wry and jaundiced eye. The Fugazi stuff is about pointing things out rather than, “Here’s another song about the scene, man,” which he nailed quite well in his earlier writing. If you’re writing all the time, it’s a very effective monitor of yourself: it’s constant self-reference. So you’re always looking at yourself, looking at your back catalogue, and analyzing your writing. And you’re asking yourself, “Where am I at? Why am I writing like this? Why is it looking like this right now?” That’s the conclusion I’ve come to. I’m older, not necessarily wiser or better. It’s just that things that were tender are now calloused. And that could be from experience, from apathy, from weariness, from a lot of things. I think a lot of it is just sheer repetition, where I’m not looking to repeat, or just looking for new places to put my carcass. I’m not always relying on my imagination; I’m relying on geographical displacement. Like, drop me into Africa and turn me loose in that environment and see what happens. So the writing, the documentaries, the reading I do, the interests I have now…well, the world is interesting, and I’m a very small part of it. Now go, and let’s see what happens now.